Governor seeks drought status

Published 11:03 pm Thursday, September 9, 2010

Crop drought: Governor Bob McDonnell has submitted documentation about Virginia’s summer crop losses to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will examine the drought declaration application and decide whether to approve it. If a drought is declared by the federal government, farmers in the affected areas could qualify for low-interest loans.

Help may soon be on the way for Suffolk farmers whose crops suffered from the heat and lack of rain his summer.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack received on Thursday a letter sent Sept. 3 by Gov. Bob McDonnell to request the city and 36 other localities be named federal drought disaster areas.

“We’re doing things as fast as possible,” said Stacey Johnson, press secretary with the Governor’s office. “We know these counties and people are really in need. The heat this year clearly ran its toll. We’re trying to move as quickly as possible.”

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According to Tanya Brown, writer and editor in the USDA’s office of external affairs, if all paperwork sent from the Farm Services Agency and the governor’s office is in order, a response could be submitted in as soon as few weeks to a month.

A 30-percent yield loss of a single crop must be shown to warrant a drought declaration, which would then allow farmers to apply for low-interest loans.

“These loans would give farmers the needed capital to help compensate for financial loss this year with an extended payback time,” said Watson Lawrence, Virginia Cooperative Extension Agriculture agent in Chesapeake and an interim in Suffolk. “They still have to pay it back, but it gives them the opportunity to stay in business rather than declare bankruptcy.”

According to Lawrence, based on the current market price of corn and pasture, farmers in the city lost a total of more than $3.3 million.

In a resolution submitted to the city on July 28 and reviewed by City Council in its August meeting, Suffolk corn crops were expected to suffer a 90 percent yield loss and pastures were expected to suffer an 80 percent yield loss.

There are nearly 9,000 acres of corn crops and a little more than 3,100 acres of pasture and grassland planted in Suffolk.

In an updated assessment conducted by the Farm Service Agency and sent to the Governor’s office on Aug. 31, Melanie Lassiter, county executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Suffolk, reported that in addition to the corn and pasture loss, cotton crops are expected of have a yield loss between 20 and 25 percent.

“Farmers I’ve talked to said this has been the worst they seen thing since the mid-80s,” Lassiter said. “We had some loss in the corn crops in the mid 90s, but nothing to this severity.”

It is still too early to tell how peanut and soybean crops have fared this summer, according to Lassiter.

After the City Council sent its resolution to the Governor’s office in August, the Governor sent it to Virginia Secretary of Agriculture, whose department worked with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The department worked with the Farm Services Agency to ensure the application criteria had been met.

“It sounds like everything is on track and moving right along,” Lassiter said. “The sooner this goes through the better. It can take awhile for them to kick in. We’re just now processing disaster programs from 2008.”